Author On the Bookcase: Talia Carner
Exposing The Secrets of Jerusalem Maiden
By Talia Carner
Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
I was sixteen, though, when I visited Paris for the first time. Walking the streets of Montmartre, the fifty dollars my grandmother had given me to buy us “luxury soaps” burning a hole in my pocket, I suddenly realized with unshaken clarity that my grandmother belonged here. She should never have married, should never have had children. Instead, I saw her as a Bohemian in Paris during the avant-garde era, achieving international acclaim as an artist.
My family joked that they could never balance a plate on my grandmother’s tablecloths. Each of her embroidered flowers raised out of the cloth to full bloom, creating a field of soft sculptures.
The goo of my grandmother’s unfulfilled life and her untapped artistic genius seeped into the veins of her daughters, and I struggled to drain it out of my own.
It was not hard to imagine that my grandmother had been held back by social expectations of her time. But I needed to crawl inside the skin of such a trapped young woman, to go back to when her talent and passion were formed—and immediately stifled. What was the inner world of my feisty grandmother in the early 1900s? What was the life of my young protagonist living in the ultra-Orthodox society of Jerusalem one hundred years ago, compelled to follow a predetermined path that had no patience for the individual sum total of a maiden’s inclinations and wants?
I soon discovered that the lives of Jewish women at that era was veiled in secrecy. Historians, all male and unaware of women's concerns, failed to document the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, while the women believed that suffering in Jerusalem—pestilence, starvation, squalor, maggot-filled water cisterns, and burying half the children they bore—hastened the messiah's arrival.
The Zionist women who immigrated to the Holy Land in the dawn of the 20th century were driven by ideology to seek equality with men in the new Kibbutzim or politics, (such as Israel's late Prime Minister Golda Meir.) They wrote letters home, kept journals, and penned poetry and stories. Not so the ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in the Holy City, who remained invisible behind the walls of their insular neighborhoods, underneath modest clothing and hair coverings, and behind fear of "others." Moreover, they were isolated by religious decrees, Commandments and dictates—as well as by ignorance: while all boys studied from dawn to dusk starting at age three, most girls were not schooled at all.
I had lived in Jerusalem as a student at the Hebrew University and traveled there for work. I had waded in the cool water of Hezekiah's Tunnel and kissed a boyfriend on the ramparts of David Citadel. Now I returned there to record oral histories of old women about their mothers’ lives, interview historians, and read hand-written journals at a special library. In a museum that replicated a typical one-bedroom home down to tools, utensils, linens, furniture, books and mementos, I lingered at the primitive kitchen nook and its miniature attached yard—where women toiled their entire lives. In Mount of Olives cemetery, a tombstone read: “She provided for her husband and family for thirty years,” summing up thousands of unrecorded lives of women who were both the bearers of over a dozen children each and breadwinners in support of their husbands’ lifelong Torah studies.
As I walked the streets of Jerusalem aided by a detailed 1912 map that showed most old buildings intact, my mind's eye stripped the streets of all modernization, for in the Ottoman era even the thoroughfares remained unpaved since biblical times. Nor had there been any running water, electricity, or sanitation. Once, waiting for the traffic light to change near Me’ah She’arim, Jerusalem’s most religiously strict section where my protagonist lived, I stood next to a very young and pregnant woman. Fully covered in spite of the blistering heat, she had four children in the stroller and hanging onto her long skirt. I wondered, how much freedom had this mother had as a teenager—in our modern times—to assess her future?
Just then, a car stopped, blasting pop music through its open windows. And I thought of my protagonist, who, in a world devoid of electricity or even cars, there had been no news broadcast, no music, no sense of what lay beyond the neighborhood. My protagonist Esther knew only the Bible—and whatever she was being told was her destiny: to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. What if she dreamed of being an artist in Paris instead?
My Esther, as I was certain my grandmother should have done, was determined to bolt and follow her talent and her heart.